10 great films about women and the city

To honour the rerelease of Satyajit Ray’s The Big City – the story of a former housewife finding her place in the world of work and the bustle of Calcutta – we take a tour of 10 more remarkable films about female experience in the world’s metropolises.

Anna Coatman
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The Big City (1963)

The Big City (1963)

Satyajit Ray’s The Big City (1963) bursts into life with an ear-splitting Calcutta street scene, but swiftly shifts to the relative hush of the Mazumdar household, where a life-changing decision is about to be made.

Housewife Arati (Madhabi Mukherjee) resolves to find a job in order to help supplement her husband’s low income – going against the traditional values of Indian society, still deeply-held in the 1950s. It’s a choice that will have deep repercussions for her family, and her own sense of identity.

Arati’s first day of work is one of the first times in the film in which she steps outside her home; and seeing her walking tall in sun-filled streets, as contrasted with the dimly lit interiors of her house, is striking. Working (she sells labour-saving knitting machines to upper middle-class women) takes the Arati out of the ‘woman’s place’ of the home and into the bustle of the big city.

From Metropolis (1927) to Manhattan (1979), filmmakers have been attempting to capture the splendour and squalor of big cities since cinema began. But Ray’s compassionate film reminds us that these places have sometimes been considered men’s worlds. To celebrate the nationwide rerelease of The Big City, we round up 10 more unforgettable films that look at city living from a female perspective.

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (1960)

Director Mikio Naruse

When a Woman Ascends the Stairs is considered by many to be the masterpiece of Japanese filmmaker Mikio Naruse. The film subtly exposes the cruelly impossible situation of a single woman trying to get by in postwar Tokyo. Each evening, Keiko (played by Hideko Takamine) climbs a steep flight of stairs to reach the bar where she works as a hostess, serving drinks and “entertaining” businessmen.

Keiko’s ascent is both a metaphor for her aspirations and the uphill struggle she faces in having them realised. Naruse exposes postwar Tokyo as a city tightly regulated by unwritten rules delineating the places of men and women.

Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)

Director Blake Edwards

The most famous scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s is the opening one – the one from which the film (and the Truman Capote novella on which it was based) takes its title. Holly Golightly emerges from a yellow cab, dressed in a floor-length black gown, elbow-high gloves, dark sunglasses and an extravagant pearl necklace, and nibbles her morning croissant and coffee while gazing into the windows of one of the most exclusive shops in Manhattan. Even if you have never seen the film itself, you’ve probably seen this scene; it made the star, Audrey Hepburn, and New York synonymous. 

Much of this film, however, is holed-up in Holly’s apartment, her interaction with the (often threatening) outside world mediated by her buzzer and her exasperated neighbour (Mickey Rooney). Breakfast at Tiffany’s actually tells a deeper and darker story about a woman’s life in the city than its glamorous, iconic imagery suggests. 

A Taste of Honey (1961)

Director Tony Richardson

In contrast many other films in this list, A Taste of Honey is not set in a capital city, but rather in the northern town of Salford. The film, directed by Tony Richardson, is based on a 1958 play by Shelagh Delaney – which was groundbreaking in its bold exploration of mother-daughter relationships, teenage pregnancy, poverty, homophobia and racism. It tells the story of 17-year-old Jo (Rita Tushingham), who falls pregnant and attempts to build a new family in a small flat with her best friend, a young gay design student called Geoffrey (Murray Melvin).

Salford, once described as “a terrible drug” by Delaney, is captured powerfully in this film; the unobvious, unruly beauty of its rain-slicked streets is brought out by the black and white cinematography, lending a poetic dignity to the difficult life of the young protagonist. 

Cléo from 5 to 7 (1962)

Director Agnès Varda

Cléo from 5 to 7 follows a beautiful young singer, Florence, from 5pm – just after she’s had a cancer test – to 6.30pm, when she picks up her results. In these limbo-like hours, she meanders around Paris, visiting a clairvoyant, meeting with friends and lovers, hat shopping, taxi hopping, rehearsing, and meeting a young soldier from the Algerian war. Agnès Varda’s playfully existential film not only muses on death and the meaning of life, but also what it means for a woman to be looked at, and to look at herself.

The notion that, in the city especially, appearance is everything is suggested by the mirrors that feature throughout the film – in every café, in every corridor, in every glance. At the start of the film, Florence, faced with her mortality, forces herself to smile at her reflection and tells herself: “Ugliness is a kind of death. As long as I’m beautiful, I’m even more alive than the others.” But later on she decides to cease the act – symbolically taking off her buoyant blonde wig – and starts to question who she really is.

Vivre sa vie (1962)

Director Jean-Luc Godard

Set in 60s Paris, Jean-Luc Godard’s Vivre sa vie traces the fate of Nana – played by the director’s most famous muse Anna Karina – in 12 “tableaux”. Nana leaves her young family in order to become an actress, but soon has to resort to prostitution in order to make a living. The film takes us on a nouvelle vague voyage into the neon-lit bars of the newly pop-culture-infused capital, as well as the faded hotel rooms of the demimonde that’s drifted there since the 1920s.

Like Keiko in When a Woman Ascends the Stairs, Nana must use her sexuality in order to survive in the city, and her story too is ultimately a tragic one. As in all of his films, Godard makes Paris look hopelessly alluring nonetheless. 

Run Lola Run (1998)

Director Tom Tykwer

The thriller Run Lola Run reverses the fatigued scenario of boy-rescues-girl, when its shocking-red-haired protagonist Lola receives a panicked telephone call from her boyfriend, who’s in serious trouble with his criminal boss. Lola has only 20 minutes to find the 100,000 deutsche marks needed to save his life. So she starts to run; her high-octane route through Berlin featuring jump cuts, whip pans, split screens, and fast and slow motion, 90s music video style.

Lola is no passive victim; she’s an active heroine, sprinting through the streets with the superhuman kind of strength and determination usually only displayed by male characters.

10 (2002)

Director Abbas Kiarostami

In 10, a female taxi driver chats to her passengers – a prostitute, a jilted bride, and a woman en route to prayer among them – as she transports them around the city of Tehran. Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami taped two digital cameras to the dashboard of a car in order to record the series of 10 semi-improvised conversations that make up the film. He uses the curiously intimate environment of the inside of the cab to draw out stories that would never be told outside it; stories which allow him to explore some of the problems present, for women especially, in contemporary Iranian society.

In this innovative film, the taxi is a place of free expression for the women who travel in it, moving around the streets of a city where female opinions are only occasionally voiced out in the open. 

Dreams of a Life (2011)

Director Carol Morley

In 2003, Joyce Vincent died in her bedsit in North London. Her body wasn’t discovered until three years later, surrounded by Christmas presents she had been wrapping, and with the TV still on. Nobody – no friends or family – had noticed she’d gone. In Dreams of a Life, filmmaker Carol Morley attempts to understand this profoundly disturbing news story. Using a combination of talking-heads interviews and creative dramatisation (Joyce is played magnificently by Zawe Ashton), the documentary starts to piece together a picture of a vibrant but enigmatic woman.

Dreams of a Life is a sensitive, utterly haunting film that probes the dark side of life in the city, asking: how can you be surrounded by so many thousands of people, and yet be completely alone? 

Frances Ha (2012)

Director Noah Baumbach

It’s set in New York and shot in black and white. In these respects, Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha echoes Woody Allen’s Manhattan, released in 1979. But rather than centering on the mid-life crisis of a divorced man, Frances Ha focuses on the quarter-life predicament of a 27-year-old woman. Frances (played by co-writer Greta Gerwig) is an aspiring dancer, struggling to find her place in the world. The central romance of the film is the relationship between her and her best friend Sophie, half-jokingly likened to a “sexless marriage”. When Sophie moves out of their shared apartment, Frances’ sense of loss is signaled by her homelessness; the film is punctuated by black screens printed with the addresses of the friends’ couches, college campuses, and family homes she stays in as she moves across, out of, and back into, New York.

Though the city, for Frances, is a transient, often lonely, place, her love for it is manifest in a striking scene – a breathless tracking shot of her dancing through the streets, to the soundtrack of David Bowie’s ‘Modern Love’. It speaks volumes about the thrill of being young and free in a city where something amazing could happen just around the next corner.

Wadjda (2012)

Director Haifaa Al-Mansour

The female protagonist of Wadjda craves the kind of freewheeling freedom enjoyed, if only fleetingly, by Frances in Frances Ha. Wadjda is set in Riyadh, the capital of Saudi Arabia – a city where women are not permitted to walk un-chaperoned or uncovered in the streets. These restrictions meant that the film’s director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, had to resort to instructing her cast and crew via walkie-talkie, from inside a van. All 10-year-old Wadjda (Waad Mohammed) wants is a bicycle; getting one is a race against time, as she won’t be able to ride it when she grows into a woman.

Wadjda is one of the first feature films ever to be shot in Saudi Arabia, and it’s also the first film ever to be made by a Saudi woman. The film – both the conditions of its making and its story – demonstrates the reality that cities aren’t always open to everyone, but that this situation might one day change.

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